Council blunders before historically and unanimously supporting gender inclusive bathrooms requirement in new developments.

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This should have been a slam dunk. It should have been a night to celebrate one of the things that makes Santa Monica great: its commitment to inclusion.

But after several councilmembers questioned an ordinance that will require gender neutral bathrooms in new buildings, it became an emotionally charged debate and the celebration was put on hold for an hour or so. Many believed the issue had been resolved in 2021 when the Council supported legislation that would allow municipalities to require gender neutral bathrooms. But it’s one thing to pass a resolution urging the state to do something; and another thing to do it for yourself.

Fortunately, the city council managed a 6-0 vote (Councilmember Lana Negrete was not present) in support of the ordinance. The issue of allowing people who are non-binary or transgender access to bathrooms has been a political hot potato and civil rights issue for years across the country, but after last night Santa Monica is only the second city in the country to insure that any new development will include a safe place to use restrooms for anyone regardless of gender identity.

However, going into the meeting the vote was not assured. And after progressives “rang all the alarm bells,” as one Councilmember put it, the unlikeliest of heroes rose to the podium.

Sam Shenkman is the non-binary child of controversial super-lawyer Kevin Shenkman, who is currently suing the city (with the support of at least two Councilmembers. Even more than the progressive council members on the dais who stood up early and often last night, the Shenkmans may be the heroes of the story.

First, Kevin Shenkman gave an emotional appeal for his child. Bemoaning that “Sam is going to face a lot of hate in his life,” he appealed to the better angels of the council to pass the motion. I couldn’t be sure rewatching the evening on video, but it looked as though Shenkman was delivering his testimony directly to one of the Councilmembers he calls a friend, who had questioned the need for this ordinance in the press.

Then Sam took to the podium.

“It’s going to be ok,” started Sam with a smile after giving his pronouns. “Despite what you may have heard on Fox News, there’s not a roving band of trans people waiting to assault women in restrooms.”

After recounting that his high school has had gender neutral bathrooms for years without any problems, he continued.

“Understand that trans people – newsflash! – need to pee too.”

Sam Shenkman’s good-natured appeal – he was the picture of a happy warrior – stood in stark contrast to the angry defensiveness of Councilmember Phil Brock and the less angry but very gaslighting comments of Councilmember Christine Parra. Brock, along with Councilmembers Lana Negrete and Oscar de la Torre gave comments to the Santa Monica Lookout that they clearly regret on this issue questioning the need for this ordinance.

Sadly, Brock and Parra used much of their time last night to chastise the people who have been outraged by their quotes in an article in the Lookout instead of focusing on either the marginalized community impacted by those words or the council’s eventual decision. Negrete was not present at the meeting, although she penned an angry letter blaming the press and her political foes for “misunderstanding her statements.”

For his part, De la Torre seemed to have learned something from listening to the transgender community and their supporters over the last several days.

During the portion of the meeting where councilmembers could ask questions of staff, Brock seemed to still be looking for reasons to oppose the ordinance. While he repeatedly said throughout the evening that he supports gender neutral bathrooms, despite what he said to the newspapers, he sounded last night as though that support was conditional…at best. 

Brock’s questions covered: privacy issues, fear of women being assaulted, the impact on the water neutrality requirement for new developments, whether or not gender neutral bathrooms violate people’s religious freedoms, whether individual stalls require drains and sprinklers, and what happens if state law changes so that requiring gender neutral bathrooms is no longer legal.

In open commentary, Brock bristled at the criticisms of what he had earlier stated to the press about gender neutral bathrooms. After explaining the problem was that he hadn’t researched the issue (the same one he voted on in 2021) beforehand, and admitting that he had not read the staff report before commenting to the press; he blamed the people who were offended by his comments for not talking to him personally before being offended by his comments.

“I am, and always have been, in favor of gender neutral bathrooms,” Brock stated after explaining he was on a hike and unprepared to comment on the issue when reporters contacted him. “My question concerned that men are pigs. Sorry. Me too. We’re all pigs. And I was concerned that women would not feel safe.”

Brock continued, “I heard what I called destructive rhetoric without asking me for facts. Without asking me how I felt.” The “destructive rhetoric” Brock is talking about is the criticism of himself, not what he himself said.

A baffled Councilmember Caroline Torosis commented that she was “shocked and saddened” by the comments she received that repeated anti-transgender tropes. Torosis responded by using her time to recite a litany of ways that gender neutral bathrooms are safer for everyone, especially older people, people experiencing disabilities, and families…regardless of their orientation.

“I understand folks that say, ‘men are pigs, we need to protect women from men,”’ she continued, adding that gender neutral bathrooms have proven to be safer and cheaper to build than traditional bathrooms in West Hollywood, where they are already required. 

Up next was Councilmember Parra, who acknowledged the emotional nature of the discussion, and then blasted people that were upset with her colleagues for their public comments about gender neutral bathrooms. 

“Rather than do what some of our community groups did – they began to accuse, and use rhetoric and name call – I think that a better solution would have been to say, ‘hey let’s talk and let’s educate and let’s pull together…I appreciate the community members that reached out to me right away because that’s who we are. That’s Santa Monica…I want to be a part of the team. I want to lead with kindness. And I’m really disappointed in some of the rhetoric and name calling in some of the community groups I look to for leadership and guidance.”

Councilmember Jesse Zwick admitted to not being an expert on the issue, but said that he did some research and found that it is “noncontroversial… Everyone is entitled to their feelings, but as elected officials we need to be governed by facts.”

Councilmember Oscar de la Torre showed a softer side, also admitting that he wasn’t familiar with the issue and noted that it was a new one –  only West Hollywood is ahead of Santa Monica on requiring gender neutral bathrooms. De la Torre compared the struggle for trans rights to the struggle for racial justice. “You can’t legislate racial justice…it takes time for people to become adjusted to the change. Sometimes as elected officials, it’s our job to hear all voices, make sense of it, and bring those concerns forward.”

While de la Torre was also quoted in the Lookout article for being concerned about the measure, he chose to use his time last night to praise the bravery of those who spoke out to support those that have been oppressed. It was a welcome change of pace from some of the other commentary.

De la Torre ended his comments and thanked everyone who spoke up, singling out Sam Shenkman for his bravery and impact. “Sam, thank you very much for your comments. I read your op-ed as well, and it was very impactful for me to put myself in your shoes, to understand what it would be like.”

Mayor Gleam Davis kept her comments brief and noted that the battle for trans rights mirrors the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. “This is a civil rights issue, and the idea that we can somehow couch discomfort as not being discriminatory really bothers me…people were uncomfortable in the 1960s when they desegregated schools.”

Public comment ended with Brock calling for restrooms at existing restaurants and office buildings to convert to gender-neutral bathrooms.

During public comment, representatives from Santa Monicans for Renters Rights, Santa Monica Forward, Supervisor Lindsey Horvath, and Assemblymember Rick Chavez Zbhur all spoke in favor of the motion. Former Mayor Sue Himmelrich also testified in favor of the ordinance, her first appearance at City Hall since she left office.

They were joined by another half dozen members of the community, including military veteran Dan Hall, who met with Councilmembers Brock, Negrete, and Parra after their comments in the local press. Hall, who is gay but not transgender or non-binary, recounted the fear and harassment he faced in the military during the shameful Don’t Ask Don’t Tell era. He compared the rhetoric he faced then to the rhetoric being used to oppose or question the bathroom bill. While he wasn’t mentioned by name on the dais; many councilmembers clearly referenced his story and outreach as an example of the kind of bridge building they would like to see.

Damien Newton
Damien Newton
Damien is the executive director of the Southern California Streets Initiative which publishes Santa Monica Next, Streetsblog Los Angeles, Streetsblog San Francisco, Streetsblog California and Longbeachize.

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